Trip Report - Bros-in-Laws at Assateague
Scott Hollingsworth/Dusty Hollingsworth - OC2
Mike McCrea - OC1
This first brothers-in-law trip grew out of unrealized 30-year-old dreams of an Isle Royale trip. Jobs, marriage, kids and kids on the way prevented us from fulfilling that long ago dream destination this time out, and so we settled for a 5 day paddling journey on Sinepauxent and Chincoteague Bays behind Assateague Island.
Arriving at the Old Ferry Landing at the Assateague Island Nat'l Seashore, backcountry permits in hand, we were pleased to find the day warm and nearly windless. Warm is not uncommon thereabouts, nearly windless is nearly never. Our paddle in to the Pine Tree site 5 miles south was unexpectedly easy, and certainly none of us anticipated spending the next 5 days in shorts, tee shirts and Tevas. In hindsight I'd gladly have traded those two sets of fleece and long underwear I packed for another 4 pack of Guinness.
With naught but a gentle breeze to forestall our progress we quickly arrived at the Pine Tree backcountry area, selected the best of the sites - no one else there, so we had our pick - and once camp was established headed out to the Atlantic side for a beachwalk.
Traversing the island we noted a peculiar barrier island phenomenon; although the island is less than a mile across at its widest the oceanside and bayside weather can often be distinctly different and the demarcation line between these competing influences abrupt. Bayside, warm, sunny, winds from the southwest. Oceanside, cool and misty with an onshore breeze.
An after-sunset reprise of that beachfront hike provided a delightful sense of visual depravation, with the dunes and beach presenting an oddly monochromatic landscape under the faint light of the new moon, the inter-dune flats appearing featureless and alien. I love hiking with folks who distain flashlights. We soon retired to our campsite, to a cheery fire of paddled-in oak and to the internal warmth of single barrel bourbon.
After breaking our fast next morning, with a short order repast of eggs and bacon hot from the cast iron griddle, Scott and I headed out with empty canoes to explore the deep gut to our south. This gut, extending to within a hundred yards of the ocean and aimed directly at a duneless stretch of beachfront, is an inlet waiting to happen. Thank Mother Nature for the hurricane of '38 that cut a new inlet between Assateague and Ocean City; without that watery divide unspoiled Assateague would today be replete with boardwalk, condominiums, arcades and drunken teenagers on spring break.
Our paddle up the gut route took us around a duckblind, past an abandoned hunting lodge and under a plank bridge leading to the lodge. In a miraculous feat of timing Dusty managed to hike over the bridge, to the lodge and spend time in the duck blind (no doubt making bang-bang noises while pointing his finger skyward) without crossing our path.
Returning to camp Scott and I were thoroughly trounced by Dusty in a game of all-terrain Bocci before heading out for an empty boat explore of the wind protected backwater sloughs to the north. One benefit of the Pine Tree site is the availability of wind-protected backwater routes waiting to be explored.
This progging paddle (progging is an eastern shore waterman's term meaning to wander aimlessly around the fringes of the marsh or swamp, looking for things useful, interesting or edible) took us back to the very wedge-a-boat-between-the-bank narrows at the end of a slough and off afoot in the marsh, following pony and sika deer trails, dancing around piles of pony poop (the fecal two-step) and thence back the slough to the wind exposed tip of a bayside peninsula, returning with a sun bleached pony skull as camp decor.
The route back to camp exposed us for the first time to the familiar Assateague endeavor of paddling into the teeth of the wind, and Scott and Dusty made an extraordinarily adept tandem team, with Dusty double blading in the bow and Scott steering single blade astern. I was especially impressed that they quickly developed a paddler's eye and feel for the wind assisted ferry angle, deepwater route selection and the play of the wind-driven current. Not bad boys, not bad at all.
Returning to camp we tuned in the weather radio to hear the welcoming news that the wind was forecast to turn 180 degrees tomorrow and tomorrow only, perfect for our plans to move camp further south to the Green Run sites.
The Assateague backcountry sites are progressively more difficult to reach and are laid out to accommodate a progressively smaller number of visitors. The Tingles Island site is only two miles from the Old Ferry Landing, along a relatively sheltered route and will accommodate 5 parties or 25 people, whichever comes first (ie if 25 Boy Scouts hike in that's all she wrote).
The Pine Tree site is 5 miles from the put in, with a few exposed areas along the route but blessed with numerous leeward sneak routes, and will likewise accommodate 5/25. Green Run is a 10 mile paddle from the ferry landing, along a very exposed embayed shoreline, replete with shallow water sandbars that make low tide paddling nearly impossible (can you say "Get out and walk") and is good for 3 parties or 20 people. The Pope Bay site is 13 arduous miles; reachable through a complex archipelago of channels and islands where the wind driven current can run strong and map reading is a necessity, limited to 2 parties or 15 people.
Thirteen miles might not sound like much, but I wouldn't recommend setting out for Pope Bay without good maps, slack winds and lots of daylight.
Listening to the weather radio in camp and hearing the winds at 20, gusting to 25 we finally grew a collective brain and moved our "living room" off the exposed knoll we had first occupied and into a sheltered hollow behind a large Holly. Sure was nice to finally get out of the wind. Duh.
Tuesday morning saw a leisurely pack up and out, as the promised tailwind was late in developing and we eventually launched into a calm and nearly glasslike bayside, one of perhaps three times I've seen the Chincoteague Bay flat and windless in 25 years of visits. A little breeze would have been appreciated, as the sun beat down mercilessly, no shade to be had in mid-bay. Dusty learned two valuable lessons - 1) When attempting to apply sunscreen to your face don't forget that you are wearing sunglasses and liberally smear SPF30 on the lenses and 2) After smearing sunscreen on your glasses do not remove them and proceed to rub the residual lotion directly into your eyeballs.
The Green Run site is situated immediately behind another abandoned hunting lodge, not the most aesthetically pleasing entrance to a backcountry site, and this is complemented by an expanse of shoe sucking marsh mud at the launch. The site itself is an open sandy oval 40 yards long by 20 yards wide amid the pines, fine perhaps for a single party like us but intrusively open for camping with multiple groups. The sites at both Tingles Island and Pine Tree are much more scattered and private.
One advantage of Green Run is the proximity to the ocean; close enough to hear the roar of the surf, close enough to taste the salt spray in the air, close enough to reach the beach in only a few minutes walk, which we did, repeatedly. Hiking the inter-dune area here we practiced our tracking skills, following the trails of mice, fox, raccoon and sika deer and were interested to discover that numerous raccoon trails leading out to the surf. I've never seen a raccoon on the beach, but it must be a veritable smorgasbord of fiddler crabs, dead fish and other delectable offerings. Either that or there are several deranged raccoons headed for Europe.
An afternoon empty boat day paddle saw us struggling into a serious headwind, at low tide, in search of the Pope Bay site. After encountering several shallow sandbars, necessitating some lengthy walking of the boats, we made it as far as a narrow channel leading towards the Middlemoor Thorofare. Looking at the current moving through the channel, the still shallowing water as the tide continued to fall and the whitecapping waves we wisely abandoned the attempt and elected to once again prog the marsh edges afoot.
A lengthy prog turned up a sika deer antler and produced a pot of mussels to supplement dinner when we were struck by the realization that it was getting foggy. As we paddled back toward the island it got foggier. Foggier and foggier, until all of the landmarks, peninsulas and even the treeline disappeared into the gloom. After venturing into several dead end guts where our camp wasn't this became increasingly comical and worrisome, especially when we recalled passing the same duckblind three or four times.
Demonstrating the navigational prowess for which I am oft noted (overheard on a night float several years ago as I paddled away from the group for some solo time - said Kathy: "He's going to get lost you know", replied Joel: "Yeah, but he likes being lost") I led us on a discombobulated and circuitous route, eventually stumbling onto our campsite right where I thought it wasn't.
I can only imagine what would have transpired had we continued on towards Pope Bay, into an archipelago of islands, channels and guts that is massively confusing even in good weather. As it was I was haunted by the mental refrain of the Gilligan's Island theme, "A three hour cruise... a three hour cruise...
Thursday's paddle out was wind driven and effortless as promised. We covered the first 6 miles in an hour and twenty minutes, and for part of that we were rafted up and floating. Paddling was as simple as sticking the canoe on a wave and surfing the miles away.
As we rounded the backside of Tingles Island I espied a familiar hat, shading a familiar head, stroking into the wind in a familiar kayak. Paddling pal Vic Chenowith, leading the way on a Duckhead trip. We encountered his companions Patty, Theresa and Kara loading gear at the Ferry Landing when we arrived (The Squatter's motto "Not as fast as they look"). Vic and three women alone on a deserted island for a long weekend. Vic, you da man!
And so the first brothers-in-law trip was successfully concluded. Fine weather, fair winds, few bugs, fantastic companions (who didn't seem to believe me when I told them that every trip isn't this well favored) - I believe a good time was had by all. Let's do it again next year.
Post script - Since the boats were still on the van come Sunday we replaced the Penobscot with Cooper's Tupelo and he and I did a downriver run. "Cooper's Tupelo" because it was his first full day of OC1 and he handled the boat beautifully, through rock gardens, a couple of small drops and numerous tight squeeze moves. We may have crossed the threshold to being a family of solo boaters.
Time to redesign the roof racks.
OC1 and OC2, but this area is well suited (perhaps better suited) for sea kayaks.
Backcountry permits required, available from the Nat'l Park Ranger Station on the Island (near the north beach parking area).
Take Rte 50 in Maryland almost as far east as it goes. Turn south onto Rte 611 and follow that onto Assateague Island.
Backcountry Camping at Assateague Island National Seashore
Topographic (or other quality) map coverage is recommended, especially for trips to the Green Run or Pope Bay sites.
Smaller format maps sufficient for trips to the Tingles Island and Pine Tree backcountry sites are available at the ranger station.